“This photograph is very telling to me.”
It’s a photograph uncovered by an exclusive NewsChannel 3 investigation into the events of February 11th, 2014.
That’s the day VDOT shut down the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel for the entire evening rush hour because of partially hanging ceiling tiles at the entrance to the East bound tube.
Something they discovered after a phone call from Harley white.
“I saw it come down really quick right as I entered the tunnel, boom, right into the front of my truck,” said White.
When he got home, White discovered a slice to his front metal grill, and immediately alerted VDOT.
His phone call was logged into their incident reporting system at 3:03 p.m.
White told an operator “something fell from the ceiling and hit his vehicle.”
It’s the first in a long line of entries from that day.
Inspectors immediately went to check it out, and found ceiling tiles 7 and 8 hanging down 4.5 inches in the right lane.
“This photograph along with what they did as a result of my phone call says to me there was a life-threatening situation in that tunnel,” said White.
During the 4-hour long tunnel shut down, VDOT workers were able to find the cause.
An internal bolt broke, causing the panels to detach.
“A bolt could have done that damage to my truck,” said White.
Looking at the picture, White also points to this black spot he thinks is a missing chunk of tile.
“A piece of concrete could have come out of the hole, hit my front grill, break it, then disintegrate,” said White. “That could be what I heard rattling in the back of my truck.”
But when he sent his $787 repair bill in to VDOT to file a claim…
“It was denied. They said there was no evidence that anything in tunnel damaged my truck,” said White. “They can’t say nothing fell.”
“At no time did anything fall, at no time was there a danger to the public,” said Ronald Watrous, the Communications Manager for VDOT’s Hampton Roads District.
Watrous says the tiles could never have fallen – because of the design of the tunnel ceiling system.
“They are like LEGOs. They interlock, and are designed that way to be a single system throughout the entire tunnel,” said Watrous. “They will be mutually supporting with the structure so they don’t have a risk of falling should a bolt, in this case, fail.”
Watrous admits there was some debris “unaccounted” for.
“A bolthead was the one piece we could not find,” said Watrous, but he cautioned it could never have caused the damage to White’s truck–because the bolt head is the size of a pencil eraser.
“When you look at this, a piece of debris this size, which is the size of a piece of gravel, it is not going to cause a scrape down a vehicle,” said Watrous.
So what about that little black spot that looked like missing concrete?
“The tile was completely intact. That was dirt and grime that just needed to be cleaned off in a poor quality photo,” said Watrous. “The panel itself was 100% intact, and nothing was missing.”
Looking at the photo – you be the judge.
It seemed VDOT had an answer for everything, but NewsChannel 3 just had to ask: Looking at this guy’s case, he was the one who called and prompted the inspection, then VDOT actually found a problem at the same area he told you to look, so if he can’t get paid, who can?
“In this case, with the totality of circumstances, there wasn’t enough evidence to show negligence on VDOT’s part,” said Watrous.
According to White’s denial letter, the state “is only liable for damages that are attributed to negligence by the department or an employee.”
White, though, isn’t willing to accept that answer.
He plans on appealing to the state’s Risk Management division.
“A bolt all of a sudden broke? This didn’t happen all of a sudden, this is a result of age and poor maintenance,” said White. “That’s negligence, and somebody needs to be held accountable.”